Monday 21 October 2019

This Man's Life: The archangel Gabriel Byrne's good news reminds me of the past

Gabriel Byrne:
Gabriel Byrne: "one of the great, and the most decent, the most loyal and the most compassionate Irish men on terra firma". Photo: AFP/Getty Images
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

There's an old Irish saying: "A son is a son till he takes him a wife, a daughter is a daughter all of her life." Gabriel Byrne and his wife Hannah Beth King had a baby girl last month. And that little girl is in for a real treat.

Her dad is not only one of the great Irish actors of his, or any, generation - with critically acclaimed performances in The Usual Suspects, Miller's Crossing and Smilla's Sense of Snow to name a few. But, much more importantly, her dad is also one of the great, and the most decent, the most loyal and the most compassionate Irish men on terra firma. He has the soul of a radical Celtic poet inside all that Brandoesque broodiness.

Some people can read Finnegans Wake and come away thinking it's a simple love story. Others can read the ingredients on a box of bran flakes and unlock the secrets of the universe. Byrne is a mixture of the two. He reminds me of what Daniel Day Lewis was getting at when he told The New Yorker magazine in 1992 in a profile entitled "An actor from the shadows": "If I weren't allowed this outlet, there wouldn't be a place for me in society."

Archangel Gabriel is wise without being preachy. From time to time over the years, he has given me advice without coming across as judgmental. I would consider him a friend. We first bumped into each other in 1988; I was going into the Shelbourne Hotel and he was coming out. He did a double take.

It was like a scene from Duck Soup by the Marx Brothers. Gabriel thought, he would later tell me, that I was Mick Hucknall of Simply Red.

We had a brief chat in the rain. He told me he was flying back to New York in the morning.

I told him (a boastful lie in a misguided attempt to impress him) that, hey, I might be going to New York, too. I wasn't. I hadn't the price of a pint of Guinness in the Shelbourne bar, let alone a ticket to America. He gave me his number anyway and said to give him a call when I got to the Big Apple. I assumed it was his agent's number or, worse, a wrong number.

When I rang it a few weeks later, a woman with a US accent answered the phone. It was Ellen Barkin. She was as nice as pie and asked me about the weather in Ireland before putting her husband on the phone. We chatted and made a loose agreement to stay in touch: which we have to this day.

Bizarrely, in June 1996, I sat next to a young boy and his childminder on a flight to New York. From what the childminder was saying, and the young boy was saying, I worked out by the time we landed in JFK that this was Jack Byrne, Gabriel and Ellen's son. When I had dinner with Gabriel two months later at the Ritz Carlton in Chicago for an interview with the Sunday Independent, Gabriel was fascinated by the story.

A few years later in the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin - God knows how many after we first met - Gabriel told me a story of his own about Jack. He said that an encounter with Bono at a Manhattan party in 2002 got him thinking about the whole cycle of fathers and sons.

Gabriel recounted how more than a decade before, the imminent birth of his son had been announced by Bono from a Dublin stage. June 5, 1989: Gabriel had been sitting in the audience of the Point Theatre with his heavily pregnant wife Ellen, when Bono, on stage with Bob Dylan, dedicated Knockin' On Heaven's Door "to a little boy who hasn't been born yet and he is sitting inside his mother in the fourth row. Jack Byrne, this is for you".

Bono and Dylan then performed the song for the unborn child.

Jack is now a grown-up young man. So when Gabriel met the U2 singer at the aforesaid Manhattan soiree in 2002, Bono expressed the hope that Jack wasn't "too into Limp Bizkit". Gabriel had to acknowledge that his son was too into US shock-rock. Jack, however, was discriminating in his musical taste. As Gabriel told me in the Shelbourne that night, his then almost teenage son would see U2 very much as the "status quo" - note to Bono: cover your ears now! - "wouldn't be a big fan of Bono's", and Dylan would probably be "a pensioner, an old dinosaur". (Many years later, Jack formed a blues supergroup called The Dough Rollers with Harrison Ford's son Malcolm, and he spent the summer of 2010 touring America with a certain dinosaur called Bob Dylan.)

"I try to open their minds," Gabriel told me years ago - referring to Jack and his other child, Romy, by Ellen Barkin - "and say: 'Forget what you think, just have a listen to the lyrics'. When they are 12, of course, they know more than you do. It is a difficult time."

You were the same with your father, I asked?

"I think every kid has heard: 'That's not music. Not like in my day. You can't hear what they're saying'," he laughed.

Gabriel then recalled his own disagreements with his father. "And I am now dealing with my son," he smiled. "Jack is now at a stage of life where I am a fool and he is cool. They get to that stage really fast. I suddenly began to understand what my father had to go through with me. Not that I did anything terrible or bad but just the shifts that happen in a relationship between a parent and a child. Just like they are between men and women."

There comes a moment in every man's life, Byrne continued, when he looks in the mirror and sees his father looking back at him.

I see my dead father looking back at me, too, when I look in the mirror in the evenings. It hurts me inside that neither he nor my mother ever got to see or hold my daughter Emilia or meet my better half, Aoife. But that's for another day, another column, another mood.

The summer sunshine is here and I don't want to depress myself. I'm off to take the baby for a stroll.

Sunday Independent

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox every morning.

Don't Miss

Editor's Choice